Careers, Career Trajectories, and the Self

David R. Heise, Indiana University

Chapter 3 (pp. 59-84) in Judith Rodin, Carmi Schooler, and K. Warner Schaie (Eds.), Self-Directedness: Cause and Effects Throughout the Life Course.
Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990.

Most social interactions transpire within the framework of standard role relationships like parent-child, employer-employee, minister-worshiper. Everyone has a variety of such roles in different social institutions like family, occupation, and religion, and people often accumulate multiple roles within a social institution as they mature--for example, a woman may be at once a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a wife, and a mother. Acquisition of roles within social institutions occurs in an orderly way with some roles having other roles as prerequisites--for example, one must be a mother before one can be a grandmother--so institutions provide individuals with orderly sequences of status advancement and self-expansion.

Career is a reasonable name for an ordered sequence of roles within an institution. Careers often are viewed--by laypersons at least--as biographical productions of individuals achieving according to personal preferences and peculiar destinies. A career in this view is the record of idiosyncratic accomplishments within a particular life history. Sociologists on the other hand have focused the term mainly on the sharing of ordered experiences as a result of common socialization and of recurrent social reactions to certain kinds of performances (Becker & Strauss, 1956; Glaser & Strauss, 1971; Rains, 1982). In this view, careers are individualistic productions that are shared because they emerge repeatedly under the same conditions. Here, I propose another orientation, that careers are cultural structures that unfold in accordance with institutional rule systems. This orientation still allows that individuals build unique biographies with individualistic flair but suggests that they do so largely by End p. 59 voyaging along standard career trajectories in idiosyncratic combinations. Orderly sharing of experiences still is an aspect of careers but arises because role participants shape similar experiences as they apply culturally given knowledge and sentiments to interpret what is happening to them during status transitions. The new orientation bridges individualism and social structure while also offering precision in studying career paths.

An institutional approach to careers is outlined in the next two sections. First, I discuss careers as sequences of status transitions generated by grammars derived from taxonomies of roles. I then discuss career trajectories--the attainment of varying levels of social valuation and power as a career line unfolds. Two examples are presented--one involving careers in the Catholic Church and the other dealing with kinship.

In the last section I discuss how institutional career structures impact on individuals over the life course. Because different roles confer varying levels of social esteem and power, people with a variety of roles may be richer than those with fewer roles in that people with more roles might be more able to activate interactions that yield desired gratifications. People with a variety of roles also are more likely to experience subjective variety in how they are gratified and in how they gratify others. Thus, a person's life experiences relate to advancement along various career lines within institutions and across institutions, and careers are a relevant topic in studying the development of self, including self-esteem and the sense of self-efficacy.


Anthropologists have studied the logical relations of role identities mainly in terms of typologies constructed through componential analysis (Goodenough, 1956). For example, family roles might be analyzed in terms of gender, generations, and consanguinity (among other things), in which case a "mother" can be interpreted as a female consanguineous relative removed one generation upward (Wallace &: Atkins, 1960). Typologies are the intellectual products of analysts who organize semantic systems through the use of externally imposed distinctions that may or may not have reality in the culture to which they are applied (Werner & Fenton, 1970). Thus, a typology that helps anthropologists understand an indigenous culture may not be part of that indigenous culture.

Taxonomies offer a different way of defining the logical organization of constructs. For example, a taxonomy of "living things" might separate End p. 60 "plants" and "animals," with "plants" dividing into "trees," "flowers," and so on and "trees" dividing into "oaks," "maples," and the like. In this case, all of the analytic constructs come from the cultural corpus being analyzed, and relations between constructs are indigenous in that the connections are part of the terms' cultural meanings, part of the way a given group represents knowledge about a topic. Moreover, the relation between constructs is one of inclusion (e.g., "living things" include "plants," which include "trees," which include "oaks"). Consequently a taxonomy is a cultural classification that specifies logical relations: An oak implies a tree, which implies a plant, which implies a living thing.

Anthropologists (Spradley, 1979; Werner & Fenton, 1970; Werner & Schoepfle, 1987) have written in depth about taxonomies, and anthropologists have applied taxonomic methods as a way of organizing folk knowledge about nature. However, taxonomies have not been applied (as far as I am aware) to the study of institutional role identities. This is an important slippage: It is exactly such an approach that leads to the discovery that careers are cultural structures embedded in indigenous knowledge of social institutions.

Taxonomic analysis of role identities requires a different perspective than componential analysis. In componential analysis, one defines a role by asking how a person with that role is different from another person. In taxonomic analysis one asks how the roles of one individual necessarily relate to other roles of the same individual.

Consider this example. In componential analysis, a "mother" necessarily is a different person than a "daughter" because the emphasis is on how one's mother differs from one's daughter, on the generational difference between two women. But in taxonomic analysis, a "mother" always is a "daughter": One cannot possibly be a mother without being a daughter. We actually can say that a mother is a kind of daughter, that mothers are a subset of daughters, that being a mother implies being a daughter.

Having accepted this conceptualization, it is easy to elaborate the taxonomy for conventional female family roles. Here, for example, is one line of the taxonomy. A wife is a kind of daughter; a mother is a kind of wife; a mother-in-law is a kind of mother; a grandmother is a kind of mother-in-law. Daughter is most general among these categories in that daughter embraces all the rest. Grandmother is the most specific category in that grandmothers are a subset of mothers-in-law who are a subset of mothers who are a subset of wives who are a subset of daughters.

Moreover--and this is the key point here--this taxonomic line defines the procreative career for females in our Western institution of family. The cultural taxonomy is not only a system of meanings; it also operates dynamically as a rule system governing status transitions. A woman goes End p. 61 from being a daughter to being a wife to being a mother, then a mother-in-law, and then a grandmother. Individual women may develop their procreative careers idiosyncratically, some terminating as wives, some as mothers, and so on, but each of these variations (and more complex ones I mention later) also is a cultural structure: a pattern that can be generated from the family taxonomy applied as a system for producing status transitions. Some careers are long, some are short, but all obey the same restrictions on movement from status to status.

A taxonomy of role identities provides an institutional grammar (Colby, 1975; Skvoretz, 1984; Skvoretz & Fararo. 1980) for building careers in the same sense that we have a grammar for building sentences from words. A grammar defines how elementary units are to be strung together in order to create a proper and comprehensible serial outcome. In the case of careers, an institutional taxonomy of roles (with some additional understandings) turns into a grammar that defines permissible status transitions and thereby possible careers.

On the one hand, a taxonomy of role identities is a body of knowledge about how people develop and become more and more differentiated (e.g., as members of a family). On the other hand, a taxonomy is a key component of the rule system for generating status transitions: it defines the sequence of status transitions that is necessary in order to attain a particular role. Thus, a taxonomy simultaneously operates as a means of understanding reality and as a means of creating reality. Different cultures may have different taxonomies for the same domain (e.g., different kinship terminologies) and therefore different knowledge about reality, but each knowledge system is correct because each is a rule system generating the reality it describes.1

This framework leads neatly to a method for studying careers within social institutions. Obtain the institutional taxonomy of roles with the aid of an expert consultant who has the required knowledge, apply the taxonomy as a grammar for generating conventional status transitions, and examine the career paths which result. Careers thereby can be studied as ideal types, while individuals' actual careers as revealed in life history data (Luborsky, 1987) are empirical manifestations.

I elaborate this approach to careers when I turn to specific examples. First, though, there is another aspect of careers that I want to consider. End p. 62


Role taxonomies operating as institutional grammars define which status transitions cannot--or should not--happen. For example, a woman cannot make a transition directly from sister to mother within the family institution; motherhood issuing from the sibling role would violate an incest taboo. However, these grammars do not explain why a person might select a specific career from permissible alternatives or why a person might prefer some roles of a career line while wanting to de-emphasize others. To deal with individual preferences we have to recognize that every institutional role offers a profile of resources, and a career defines a trajectory of gains and losses.

Sociologists generally agree that social valuation and power are two key dimensions of social position. My interpretation of these constructs as social resources derives from Kemper (1972, 1978). Social valuation elicits voluntary patronage from others as others try to exhibit their good will toward one's position. Power elicits involuntary cooperation from others as others act to enhance or to prevent debilitation of their own positions.

I measure the social valuation of a role in terms of averaged ratings on an evaluation scale ranging from "bad, awful" to "good, nice." Relational aspects of power are coded psychologically I presume, and the capacity of a role to enhance or debilitate others' fortunes can be captured by averaging responses to the role on a potency scale ranging from "little, powerless" to "big, powerful."

Graphs of career trajectories allow one to see at a glance how the overall valuation or power of one career line compares with another, The graphs also show how social regard and potency are gained--or lost--at each status transition within a career line.

A career trajectory can be graphed by plotting the evaluation or power of roles in the career line against a time dimension. For some purposes the time dimension in careers might be defined in terms of average age at investiture in each role. However, this introduces a statistical element in the time measure and also may suggest a misleading correspondence between career development and biological aging, so instead, in this chapter, I employ a sociological unit of time derived directly from the logic of careers. Each role is plotted one step beyond the last of its prerequisite roles. This measure of "advancement" is ordinally related to biological time: The unit between one role and the next may represent a period of 1 year or 20 years.

The career trajectory graphs that are presented here show average End p. 63 evaluations or average potency ratings of roles on the vertical axis (actual numerical data are provided in tables in the Appendix). The horizontal axis is the time dimension of advancement. Dotted horizontal lines on the graphs show neutral points in ratings: roles above the dotted lines were rated good, or powerful, and those below the dotted lines were rated bad, or powerless. Roles in a career line are connected by lines, and I use dotted connecting lines to distinguish exceptional kinds of careers (i.e., female Church careers, and kinship careers associated with family splintering or widowhood).

Data for mapping social valuation and perceived potency of roles come from surveys in which respondents rated roles on evaluation and potency scales. Church roles were rated by working-class adolescents attending Catholic schools in the center of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Several hundred students participated in the study, but only a few--about 25 males and females combined--rated any particular role because the project goal was to assemble a dictionary of ratings for more than 1,000 different concepts. Family roles were rated by college students in the U.S. South, and here, too, the original project was designed to acquire measurements on thousands of concepts (Heise & Lewis, 1988b; Smith-Lovin, 1987) so ratings of roles on evaluation and potency are averages based on small samples--about 25 males and 25 females.

Evidence indicates that such ratings represent general cultural phenomena and vary remarkably little by social characteristics of the raters (Heise, 1966), with the same general patterns of ratings even occurring cross-nationally in many Western nations (Heise, 1987a; MacKinnon, 1985). Thus, there is some justification for discussing institutions in terms of evaluation and potency ratings obtained from subpopulations of respondents. On the other hand, it is known (Heise, 1979) that participation in specialized groups affects ratings of selected concepts. Considering this latter point and the small sample sizes, the data on evaluation and power must be treated as suggestive rather than definitive.


It is desirable to employ a well-institutionalized set of roles to illustrate the ideas just mentioned about careers and career trajectories so that the rules governing status transitions are well defined and career paths are clear. ("Institutionalization involves the processes by which social processes, obligations, or actualities come to take on a rule-like status in social thought and action," Meyer & Rowan, 1977, p. 341.) As a first example, I examine roles within the Roman Catholic Church. These roles are End p. 64 as institutionalized as any in our culture. Moreover, I have reasonably adequate data on the social valuation and perceived power of these roles from a lay Catholic population.

Figure 3.1 shows a taxonomy of roles in the Catholic Church. The taxonomy is incomplete--especially for female roles (e.g., the diagram includes Abbot but not Abbess)--because I include only the roles for which I have dimensional data. Also, the diagram anomalously suggests that a person could be both a Nun and a Priest, and the taxonomy would have to be elaborated along the lines of the family roles--Fig. 3.4--in order to represent properly the Church's sharp distinction between male and female Catholic careers. However, with these caveats, the taxonomy probably is close to correct because most of the role relations are institutionally defined, and the taxonomy was derived in an interview with a priest. I conducted the interview with the assistance of a portable computer and program ETHNO (Heise & Lewis, 1988a) which elicited the taxonomy by questions like "a priest generally is or has been a deacon (yes or no)?" The computer program was helpful because it made inferences from prior answers in order to ask the minimum number of such questions. Also, the program composed the initial taxonomic diagrams for this chapter.

The diagram shows which roles are prerequisites for others when reading downward. Thus, for example, being a Catholic is a prerequisite End p. 65 for being a Catholic seminarian, a monk, a nun, or a friar; being a priest and a missionary both are required to be a Catholic evangelist; and to be a Pope one has to be both an evangelist and a cardinal.

The diagram shows which roles imply others when reading upward, and a role implies all roles which are reachable by tracing upward paths. Thus, being a priest implies being a clergyman, a deacon, a seminarian, a minister, a preacher, and a Catholic.

A career is a sequence of roles ending in a terminal role, and the roles in an ideal career can be defined by starting at the terminal role and tracing upward along every available path in the taxonomic diagram until one reaches the top. The actual career unfolds in the other direction: Starting at the top, roles are acquired until the prerequisites for a target role are fulfilled, and then the target role may be acquired.

A person can have multiple career lines within the same institution. For example, it is possible that a Catholic could become a preacher, a minister, then a friar, which constitutes one career; then later become a seminarian and a deacon to form a second Church career.

Some careers are simple and others are complexly multilayered, and tiers in the diagram help in analyzing this aspect of careers. Thus, for example, the diagram shows that Sainthood is a simple career: One either attains the status or not, and there is no sequence of roles for getting closer. Becoming pope is the longest, most complex career in Catholicism, requiring nine stages of advancement beyond simply being a Catholic.

Now let us consider the trajectories of Church careers on the dimensions of social valuation and power.

Figure 3.2 shows evaluation of Church roles plotted against career advancement. Some specific features of this graph warrant comment. Being a Saint--a career with a single stage that interlocks to nothing else--is the most highly regarded of all Church paths. Exorcist is a stigmatized role--it actually is rated as a bit "bad, awful," probably because of its association with the demonic. (Exorcist used to be a part of the standard priestly career, but Vatican II limited it to Missionaries and to Bishops who invest others in the role.) Minister appears to be a role with low evaluation, but that probably is an artifact of obtaining data from Catholics in Belfast where the term is likely to be understood as meaning "Protestant minister." The same association may be involved in the relatively lower evaluation of deacon.

Aside from these peculiarities, all of the Church roles receive high and almost equal social valuation. Church careers are a way of acquiring social regard and thereby receiving patronization from others who wish to show good will.

Figure 3.3 shows how Church careers vary in terms of perceived End p. 66 power. Remembering that minister probably does not fit within this set of Catholic roles and that Exorcist is an almost discontinued role, it becomes evident that embarking on a Church career as a monk (a nun in the case of females), a friar, or a seminarian involves forsaking power, and the level of power attributed to lay Catholics can be regained only by progressing to roles of priest, missionary, or abbot. Sainthood and the high offices of bishop, cardinal, and pope do provide a religious basis for great power, and it is notable that these are select and carefully monitored roles. (The slight loss of power in going from bishop to archbishop, if significant, might relate to the End p. 67 way role activity changes from pastoral to administrative in the course of this transition.)


A Church career is defined by any route downward in Fig. 3.1 with termination at any point, and a particular person might develop several different Church careers at once or in succession. The total number of possible careers and career combinations is very large, so the Catholic End p. 68 Church provides rich opportunities for career development with individual distinction.

Church careers largely are confined to a particular pattern of social resources: high social valuation and low power. Thus, embarking on a Church career entails seeking self-fulfillment through nonthreatening relationships with others who provide one with social support out of admiration. Power in Church careers is available to only a select few and (except for Saint) only to those with very advanced careers.


Kinship is another well-defined institution for which I have data. As before, I begin by offering a taxonomy of roles that can be interpreted as an institutional grammar defining kinship careers. The taxonomy in Fig. 3.4 deals with roles that are central in American families, although others could be added. The taxonomy is based on my own understandings of the kinship terms.

Because nearly all kinship roles are gender specific, the taxonomy divides right at the top into male and female branches, and the branches remain separate except for two roles (cousin and divorcee) which have no gender-specific labels. Because the two branches are completely parallel, I discuss only the male roles.

Son is the most general male kinship role. One of the immediate subtypes, grandson, is a role always acquired simultaneously with son, and that is why son is shaded on the diagram--to show that it instantiates something else, in this case, grandson. Brother branches from son and initiates an avuncular career including brother-in-law and uncle. The branching through nephew initiates a nepotic career that may include cousin. (The abbreviation for cousin is all capitals to signal that the role can be attained by either a nephew or a niece.) Stepson is the entry point for a splintered-family career that may include stepbrother; half-brother is shown as a different splintered-family career line branching from brother.

Alternative careers in an institution ordinarily can develop simultaneously, but kinship careers have a peculiarity in this regard: Becoming a husband eliminates the possibility of becoming a bachelor. I have included unmarried man as a dummy subtype of son in order to deal with this in the institutional grammar; when a man becomes a husband he depletes his status as an unmarried man and thereby eliminates the precondition for being a bachelor.

Getting married instigates two kinship careers at once giving one the End p. 69 role of spouse and also making one an in-law. Thus in the grammar model, husband instantiates son-in-law.

The main reproductive career follows from the husband role and includes father, father-in-law, and grandfather. This reproductive career is the most complex of kinship careers with a total of six stages.

Widower also follows from husband. Here again, a peculiarity of kinship roles has to be addressed in the model. We have to allow that becoming a widower depletes husband but reactivates (instantiates) the status of unmarried man, thereby allowing a repetition of the transition to husband. Divorcee also follows from husband, and operates in the same way as widower.

Finally, becoming a husband itself can lead to another splintered family career, that of being a stepfather.

Now let us turn to the trajectories of kinship careers, employing data from U.S. college students. I use male ratings of evaluation and potency to graph the trajectories of male kinship careers and female ratings to define female kinship trajectories. (The actual numbers are presented in Tables 2 and 3 in the Appendix.)

The evaluation of male kinship roles is shown in Fig. 3.5. The scales of the kinship graphs are different from the scales of the Church graphs. However, all of the kinship evaluation graphs that I present use the same scales and all of the kinship power graphs have the same scales.

Roles within the reproductive and avuncular careers are held in high esteem, and grandfather is the most positively evaluated of all male kinship roles. In-law roles receive somewhat less appreciation, but they are well regarded. Roles in the nepotic career and bachelorhood are approved, but less so. Splintered-family careers (shown by the dotted lines on the diagram) garner little approval, and stepfather and divorcee actually are touched with stigma rather than favor.

Figure 3.6 shows trajectories of perceived power for male kinship careers. Reproductive and avuncular careers provide substantial power except in relations with in-laws. Fatherhood represents the peak of kinship power, but power declines somewhat in later phases of the reproductive career. Bachelorhood provides modest power.

Roles defining the nepotic career and splintered-family careers are largely powerless. The only exception is stepfather, but even this role is far less powerful than the normal role of father.

Figures 3.7 and 3.8 reveal that the same general patterns occur in the trajectories of female kinship careers. (Unfortunately ratings for mother-in-law were not collected.) The gender differences that do exist mainly apply to all careers about equally. Females obtain somewhat more social valuation in their kinship roles than males do. At the same time, female End p. 71 kinship roles generally are less powerful than corresponding male kinship roles.

One specific difference between male and female kinship roles is that the nepotic career is valued more highly for females. Another difference centers around spinster versus bachelor. Spinster is valued less highly than bachelor and is much less powerful.


The taxonomy of male kinship roles is somewhat simpler than the taxonomy that applies for a male developing careers in the Catholic Church. However, the American kinship system allows for repeated starts through End p. 72 the spouse role, and this adds substantial complexity to the system (e.g., a male could be a husband, father, divorcee, husband, stepfather). In any case, there are a number of different career lines that may terminate at various points and that may be combined in sundry ways, so there is potential for considerable variation in kinship biographies.

Kinship careers are not clustered around a particular profile of social resources the way Church careers are. Rather, different patterns of resources accrue on different career lines and at different stages of a kinship career. Generally speaking, the youthful roles are esteemed and powerless. The reproductive career provides social regard and power. Family splintering yields career lines that are without honor and that are powerless. End p. 73


Role Variety

An individual almost always traverses multiple career lines. Nearly everyone has several kinship careers going, an educational career, a lay religious career, often an occupational career. Thus, at any particular time a person owns a variety of roles deriving from careers in several institutions. Given this array of roles, a particular role might be activated in order to accomplish some specific instrumental goal or to fulfill some socioemotional needs. To the extent that the roles invoke socially valued End p. 74 and powerful statuses, one also can garner others' cooperation in one's own endeavors. Thus, on the whole a person with more identities has more resources in a greater variety of circumstances for attaining a greater range of desires (Sieber, 1974).

People who have more roles can exercise greater selection in the statuses that they get to experience sometimes. They can attain fine tuning of social resources with their preferences at least occasionally. They also can move through a greater diversity of statuses if they so choose and thereby experience a richer life. (We do not usually think of someone wanting low regard or powerlessness, but some of us do crave such states sometimes--call it humility, and the desire does not seem so End p. 75 strange.) A person with a larger self generally has more freedom to experience a range of social statuses and more freedom to match roles to varying personal needs.

So far I have emphasized advantages of owning multiple roles, but I do not want to ignore the other side. Once one owns a role it can be activated not only by oneself but by others as well, and one may have to resign oneself to unwanted low evaluation or low power as others invoke various roles. Moreover, one is obligated to fulfill responsibilities with regard to the statuses of others who are in complementary roles--to offer them esteem or trepidation if their statuses warrant. Devotion to or fear of others siphons one's energies into fulfilling others' goals rather than one's own. Additionally, one may be faced with the dilemma of performing an action that accommodates an activated role but that would be aberrant were the action judged by the standards of some of one's other roles (see Stryker & Statham, 1985, for a review of the role conflict issue).

Obviously, one is more at risk of being buffeted from status to status if one owns many roles rather than a few, that is, if one has multiple institutional affiliations and careers. People with large numbers of roles who do not take charge may find themselves in the service of others, find themselves living a rich life but one without self-direction.

Role Accumulation

Some institutions are organized so that acquisition of new statuses depletes prior statuses. For example, in the military becoming a major requires relinquishing one's captaincy. However, in many institutions, as in the Catholic Church and in kinship, one retains old roles while gaining new roles. For example, becoming a father does not deplete being a husband; becoming a father-in-law does not terminate one's status as father. Although becoming a divorcee does terminate one's status as husband or wife, depletability of the spouse status is a special case within the kinship system. (See Glaser & Strauss, 1971, for an extended discussion of role accumulation and reversibility.) Consequently the number of roles one has increases on the whole as one progresses through careers. Moreover, we have seen in the example cases that career trajectories rarely are flat. Different roles in a career bring more (or less) social valuation and power. Thus, over the life course one's set of available roles tends to get larger and more diverse as well.

A peculiarity of status transitions is that these events always are conducted by others who are chartered to invest people in specific roles (Meyer, 1972). For example, the College of Cardinals makes a man a pope, and superior officers turn a captain into a major. Kinship also works like End p. 76 this. Ministers and justices are chartered to marry couples, thereby investing a set of people in the roles of husband or wife, brother or sister-in-law, father or mother-in-law, and so forth, and marriage charters a couple to reproduce, thereby investing others in the roles of son or daughter, brother or sister, uncle or aunt, grandfather or grandmother, and so on. Deviant identities2, too, are acquired through the activities of others, as labeling theorists have emphasized (Hawkins & Tiedeman, 1975; Lofland, 1969). In the case of ascribed statuses like kinship, transitions may be totally out of one's hands, as in becoming a grandfather. In the case of achieved statuses, one can assemble a biography that justifies a role transition, but investiture still awaits others' actions.

Thus, one cannot push willfully through a career; one has to wait for others to act, and so career progress and the accumulation of statuses offers little opportunity for immediate manipulation. At any particular time, one has a set of statuses; and more desirable statuses cannot be added, unwanted statuses cannot be voided (voiding of status--as with annulments or pardons--is another status transition in the hands of others). The self as represented in the corpus of one's current roles is a product of past decisions about institutional affiliations and careers, and of other's activities as agents of status transition.

Although one cannot present oneself as someone entirely new, one can promote part of what one already has become (Swann, 1984), managing selections from one's available roles by: (a) frequenting settings where desired roles are invoked and keeping away from settings where disliked roles arise; (b) conducting oneself so as to remind others of one's desired roles and so as not to remind them of one's stigmatized statuses; and (c) maneuvering others into roles that evoke in a complementary way one's own desired roles rather than undesired roles. Those with a greater number of roles have more flexibility in managing their presentation of selves. This may be one reason why they experience less psychological distress than others with fewer roles (Thoits, 1983, 1986), and it perhaps gives them a greater sense of control.

Role Aspirations

Meanwhile, however, culturally defined career lines provide explicit, common knowledge about sequential unfolding of roles, and thereby individuals may develop notions about what roles they expect to acquire End p. 77 (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Such conceptions expand psychological fields into the future and can generate an anticipated self that may be more magnificent than the self that actually is operative in current social relations. The future self tenably can be incorporated into one's self-concept as long as the future is being actualized, as long as career development is being planned and managed, as long as one is working for required credentials so that aspirations will be realized as they become logically possible.

Aspirations have a voluntary element--people aspire to roles that provide desired levels of social regard and power. However, social context also is a factor because status transitions ultimately are in the hands of others. There is reason to be optimistic about a future investment when one has few competitors for the role or when investitures are boundless, when chartered authorities are eager to fill the role in order to maintain institutional structure, and when the authorities are receiving information that one is a fitting candidate for the position. On the other hand, an aspiration can be terminated when it becomes clear that vacancies are unforthcoming in the foreseeable future, when authorities neglect the role (e.g., the role of stable master in modern cavalry units of the army), or when authorities receive no information about the self or when they receive information disqualifying the self.

Statuses involving stigma or weakness (like divorcee) may damage self-esteem and the sense of self-efficacy just as holding esteemed and powerful roles can enhance self-concepts, and the negative version of aspiration is foreboding that one is being swept toward such statuses. People ordinarily make efforts to avoid events that are likely to precipitate attainment of stigmatized roles, but here, too, much depends on contextual factors--on the efficiency of chartered authorities in processing the given form of stigma, on authorities' eagerness to stigmatize, and on the flow of secret information that qualifies one for a stigmatization.

Careers and Aging

Do youths or middle-aged adults have more control over their lives? A theory of careers offers a complex answer to a question like this.

Youths in embryonic careers with little role accumulation cannot select from a variety of roles in order to fit their needs, and they may be unable to invoke roles with any significant power because powerful positions often are located at the ends of career paths. On the whole, therefore, their social resources perhaps are minimal and their ability to control their own everyday lives may be constrained. In contrast, middle-aged adults with advanced careers in several institutions theoretically should have a multitude End p. 78 of roles from which to choose (e.g., in the family), and they may have attained at least one role with significant power (such as father or mother) as well as having access to less valued and weaker roles (such as those in the nepotic career line). Thus a middle-aged adult often has control in that he or she generally does have a role that can be activated to fit most any mood or to fulfill personal needs.

However, because careers are culturally given structures, youths can project themselves into an imagined future in which they have a complex, prestigious, powerful self. Moreover, because the aspired roles are as yet far from attainable, they are relatively secure against failure and loss. In this sense, youths might enjoy a heady period of invulnerability and psychological control. Meanwhile, middle-aged adults may be in the throes of relinquishing identities as it becomes clear that career lines are being truncated short of aspirations. A middle-aged adult may worry about some gained roles being withdrawn--whether by fate or as punishment for nonconformity. And having so many roles puts the middle-aged adult at risk of being tossed among statuses as others invoke the roles.

In short, youths may not have much control in reality, but psychologically they could feel efficacious; middle-aged folks may exercise significant control over reality, but meanwhile they may feel disappointment about failed aspirations, anxiety about vulnerable statuses, and frustration that they do not have more control in deciding which roles occupy their time. Both youths and middle-aged adults could end up with the same sense of efficacy as a result of career-related processes, but the underlying reasons are different.

A theory of careers suggests that these kinds of social psychological processes are not a consequence of biological aging but of participation and advancement in culturally given social institutions. Indeed, the same variations should be expected when comparing neophytes and old-timers within an age level. (See Lachmann, 1988, on New York teenaged graffiti artists for one example of an age-graded institution with several short career lines.) A teenager could be "old" by having advanced too fast through peer-group roles, and a middle aged adult could be ''as a youth" by having started over in new institutions or in new career lines. Career advancement occurs in sociological time, measured from one status transition to another, and all of the social psychological phenomena of careers might be found anywhere in the life course.


The key idea presented in this chapter is that career lines are predictable sequences of status transitions generated from cultural taxonomies of roles. This conceptualization of careers offers fertile ground for social End p. 79 psychological research on human development. Taxonomic structures provide a determinate framework for cataloging individual differences in role acquisition and accompanying privilege and power, so the formulation allows one to delineate how the self expands and contracts as a function of individual participation and performance in social institutions. Moreover, understanding that role taxonomies act as generative grammars allows one to comprehend how individuals project themselves into the future through aspirations. Meanwhile, the perspective suggests that individual development should vary as a function of differences in institutional participation and as a function of cultural differences in institutions.

My free discussion of relations between career development and psychological aspects of self suggested logical linkages between role processes and development of a sense of efficacy. I conclude by offering a somewhat more determinate set of hypotheses as follows.

1. Once a role is situationally invoked, a person performs in the role until the role is situationally relinquished, and in the process confirms him or herself as the kind of person who participates in the events required by the role (Heise, 1987b).

2. Performing in a role that is esteemed or powerful contributes to a sense of self-efficacy. Indeed, self-efficacy may be largely predictable from the summed evaluation and power of held roles with each role weighted by the time committed to it.

3. Aspiring to esteemed and powerful roles incorporates those roles vicariously into the self as one works to gain the credentials required for those roles. Thus, self-efficacy additionally is a function of future roles (Markus & Nurius, 1986), weighted by the time devoted to preparing for them.

These propositions lead to some expectations that could be tested.

1. Self-efficacy is influenced by institutional affiliations because institutions vary in the social valuation and power of roles they provide. Thus, people affiliating with different institutions should show differences in self-efficacy. Also, considerable variation in the development of self-efficacy is possible within institutions through selection of different career paths. Thus, people should also differ within institutions depending on their career lines.

2. Attained roles and the time committed to them theoretically provide the foundation of efficacious feelings, but aspirations (and forebodings) are another important factor. Consequently, peoples' sense of efficacy should correspond to some degree with the valuation and power of unattained roles in their career paths, and feelings of efficacy should change as career lines open--either through unexpected status attainments of the individual or through institutional changes in roles. End p. 80

3. Commitment to roles--and the sense of efficacy produced by roles--is influenced by demands of others and by cultural schedules that contro1 the amount of time a person devotes to each held role. Thus, people's sense of efficacy should be influenced by contextual demands for various kinds of role performances apart from individuals' own histories or aspirations. Moreover, institutional changes in scheduling should be found to impact on the sense of efficacy of people in the institution as roles with more (or less) valuation and power are accorded more (or less) time.

The propositions and their extensions surely are debatable (e.g., Thoits, 1983, 1986, presented more complex hypotheses about the psychological impact of multiple identities). However, the propositions listed here are useful if they simply instigate further theorizing and research regarding the fundamental theme in this chapter: that a sense of efficacy has sociocultural determinants, some of which might be analyzed usefully in terms of readily defined maps of institutional careers.


Data collection in the United States was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (Grant # l-ROI-MH29978-01-SSR); data collection in Northern Ireland was sponsored by the Jesuit Council for Theological Re8ection, and analysis of the Irish data was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (Grant # SES-8122089). I am grateful to Lynn SmithLovin (Cornell University) for her participation in the U.S. data collection and for preparing both the U.S. and the Irish dictionaries of EPA profiles. I give my thanks to Father Dennis Willigan (University of Utah) for collecting the Irish data and to Father Ronald Ashmore (St. Charles Church, Bloomington, IN) for defining careers within the Catholic Church.

Linda Lazowski and Carmi Schooler provided me with extensive and valuable theoretical analyses that allowed me to improve this chapter. They also--along with John Meyer, Sheldon Stryker, and Peggy Thoits--offered concrete suggestions that helped me make the chapter more coherent and readable. Helpful comments also were received from faculty and fellows in the Program on Identity and the Program on Affect at Indiana University when this material was presented to a joint seminar.

ENDNOTES (Page notes in the book)

1 This chapter is not the place to consider whether taxonomic knowledge is arbitrary--for example, whether biology imposes some limits on kinship terminologies. I also have to bypass the question of what happens when a taxonomic system fails to generate the reality it explains--for example, whether a new American kinship taxonomy ultimately will emerge because some contemporary American women become mothers without being wives.

2 People do not always want the statuses to which they are entitled. Sometimes people can avoid an unwanted status by refusing it, but people often are forced to participate in transition ceremonies regardless of their wishes, as in the cases of child initiations in some cultures and of criminal proceedings in our own culture. See Glaser and Strauss (1971) for more on desirability of status transitions.


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